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In rare touch, US offers deal with Russia for Griner, Whelan

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has offered Russia a deal to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expected to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine to discuss the deal and other questions.

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete steps it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at his trial. He did not provide details of the deal offered to the Russians, although a person familiar with the matter said the US government had offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

The person insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

While it is unclear whether the proposal will be enough for Russia to free the Americans, the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the United States has otherwise shunned Russia reflects growing pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and his determination to get them. residence.

It also signals growing White House acceptance of prisoner swaps as resolutions for Americans imprisoned abroad, particularly after an April swap that secured the release of Navy veteran Trevor Reed and gave an advertising victory essential to the administration.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on this proposal, and I will use the conversation to follow up personally and hopefully move us towards a resolution.

President Joe Biden, who authorized the Reed prisoner swap after meeting with his parents, signed the deal offered by the United States in the deal, officials said.

“The president and his team are prepared to take extraordinary measures to bring them home,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

If the call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov goes ahead, it would be the first conversation the men have had since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. US officials said the desire for a response to the prisoner offer was the main, but not the only, reason the US requested a new call with Lavrov on Wednesday.

Blinken said he would also speak to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a UN-brokered deal to release several tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warn him of the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.

“It helps to get clear and direct messages to the Russians about our top priorities,” including the release of Griner and Whelan, he said. They also include “what we see and hear around the world is a desperate need for food, a desperate need to bring prices down”.

Whelan, a Michigan corporate security official, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison for espionage. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false.

Griner, detained in Russia for five months after authorities said they found her in possession of vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testified at her trial on Wednesday that she had no intention criminal to bring them into the country and hastily packed for his return to a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason.

During her testimony, the Phoenix Mercury star said she still doesn’t know how the cannabis oil ended up in her luggage, but explained that she received a doctor’s recommendation for it. used to treat chronic pain from his sports injuries.

She said she was turned away at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but an interpreter only translated a fraction of what was said during her interrogation and officials asked her to sign documents without providing an explanation.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

For months, US officials had sought to deflect criticism of the apparent lack of momentum in the Griner and Whelan cases by saying the work was being done in secret and out of public view. That stance made Wednesday’s announcement all the more surprising, but Kirby said the administration decided to make it clear that a deal was on the table.

“We think it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” he said.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms trafficker once described as a “merchant of death”, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 for conspiring to illegally sell millions of arms dollars. Supporters of his release say he was jailed after an overly aggressive US sting operation, and the judge who sentenced him told The Associated Press this month she believed he had already served sufficient time in prison.

The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner exchanges, fearful of encouraging further hostage-taking and promoting a false equivalence between an American wrongfully detained and a foreign national considered rightly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, in which Reed was swapped for imprisoned Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future. The Biden administration has also come under political pressure to bring back Griner and other Americans named as wrongfully detained.

There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last publicly acknowledged contact was on February 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the question. The State Department later declared Russian diplomacy to be “Kabuki theatre” – all spectacle and no substance.

The pair last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military buildup along the Ukrainian border and Russian demands for NATO to reduce its presence in Europe. of the East and definitively refuses accession to Ukraine. The United States rejected the Russian demands.

The pair will then be in the same city at the same time next week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they will both attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum. It was not immediately clear whether the phone call ahead of that meeting, scheduled for Aug. 4-5, would presage an in-person discussion.

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